The Ultimate Goal: A Happy Joyful Dog in Competition (And Why That's Hard to Achieve)

My ultimate goal when trialing is to have the same dog in the ring that I have in training. A dog that is happy and joyful and having a blast. 

I think we all want that. And we train really, really hard for a very, very long time to get that. 

And then we compete and don't get it. And we are very disappointed and frustrated. And to be honest, a little confused. I mean, what the heck happened?? We worked soooo hard!! We made everything sooo much fun!! And when we train at home, the dog is sooo happy!! We start to question whether our dog is cut out for this. Whether the dog can handle the "stress" of the ring. Maybe this just isn't our sport. 

The problem is our expectations. We need to face a truth that many people don't talk about. 

Competing is hard. It's stressful. The dog will struggle. 

That's a fact. That's reality. Very few dogs will think it's fun. Maybe they will enjoy some pieces. But not all. Why? 

Well. There are a whole host of reasons. We are asking them to ignore every single thing that's natural to them and keeps them safe. Don't sniff, don't look, don't listen to the environment… The dog will be surrounded by novel and unpredictable distractions… people, dogs, food, environmental distractions…

I've shown in a ring after more than one dog peed in it…. you name it, I've seen it. 

And after decades of competing, I still encounter completely unique distractions. Which means it's impossible to prepare my dog for every single eventuality. I must teach a concept. And concepts are incredibly hard for dogs to learn. The dog will be under pressure. Not only can they not move away from it, they need to move INTO it. That's NOT natural… or comfortable… not at all. 

The dog must be touched by a judge. Umm, just think about how you would feel. Would you think that was fun? 

Now, don't get me wrong. With incredibly good training the dog can handle the rigors of the ring. The dog can be fairly happy. Ok, maybe more than fairly happy. 

But don't be fooled. It's still hard. Really hard. 

Setting Your Expectations: Understanding How Hard Trialing is For Your Dog

The dog is working long periods without any information. People often say "the dog only works for food." I don't believe that. I think the food (or toy) is part of the cue system. 

Our dogs don't understand "the ring" or what silly goals we are trying to achieve. They are looking for context and cues. That's it. 

Reinforcers are part of the context... and part of the cue system. Take those away and the dog is confused. The picture is completely different. Now what?? 

They must learn to work for long periods before they get a reinforcer. They must learn that "no information" means you are correct! Keep going and the jackpot will come. And that must be taught carefully and mindfully. And maintained. For the dog's entire career. And yes, the hard truth is that the dogs must learn to push through when things get challenging. If they haven't been taught to do that, you haven't prepared the dog. And that's not fair. 

When dogs struggle in the ring, it means they truly don't understand all those pieces. 

And even when they do, many dogs will still find it challenging. Because it's just not natural. Teaching dogs the exercises is the easy part. Preparing them for the ring, now that's incredibly challenging. And a career long process. I think people would be less discouraged and frustrated and disappointed if they had more realistic expectations. 

If your dog is struggling in the ring, you are not a failure. There isn't a flaw in your relationship. There are holes in your training. Find them, fix them. The performance will improve. 

Does this mean you shouldn't work towards a happy, joyful dog in the ring? No. Absolutely not. We should. Always. But does it mean that one day it will just be easy for your dog? No, it won't. That's reality. Does it mean your dog is not cut out for the sport? No. It doesn't. It just means you have to keep working. 

I hate when my dogs struggle in the ring. I want them to be relaxed and happy. It's why I'm obsessed with every tiny aspect of training. Why I'm always learning and reading and watching and thinking and analyzing. 

But I'm also realistic. I truly understand how hard it is for the dog. I truly understand that every single trial is unique and offers different challenges. I understand that regardless of what I do, the dog will, at some point, struggle. And that's part of trialing. I understand that some dogs are better at pushing through than others. But I also know that even a super wimpy dog can become more confident and can learn to handle challenges in the ring. 

Yes, it takes a lot of work. But it's possible. 

The reason I'm still training and competing is because it's not easy. My goal is elusive. There are times I get oh so close… and then it slips away. But I love challenges. So I keep at it. 

You must love the training process. Because that's what you spend the majority of your time doing. Training. Not trialing. Trialing is just a benchmark that tells you how close you are to achieving your goal. But remember, your goal must be realistic. If it's not, you will be disappointed, again and again. And that's not fun. 

I think if more people truly understood, from the dog's perspective, what we were asking, they would not get so frustrated. If think if more people understood that trialing is going to be hard for your dog, they would have more realistic expectations. And if our expectations are realistic, we will be less frustrated and disappointed. We will understand that our dogs are doing the very best they can with the training they have at that moment. And when we come home all we can do is analyze what went well and what didn't. Then keep training and do the very best we can, with our current skill level, to get a bit closer to the ultimate goal.

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